Quarters, Dreams, and Chapstick

Here’s a Riddle: What are you left with when your husband drops dead; and there is no warning, no will, no money, nothing you owned, no children, no “estate”, and nothing of monetary value in the crappy little New Jersey apartment you rented together for 7 years?

Answer: A bottle of guitar polish, some old chapstick, and a book of dumb State Quarters.

I said it was a riddle. I never said it was funny.

Exactly one month from today, I am moving. Leaving New Jersey and going back to New York. Forest Hills, Queens, to be exact. For weeks now,  I have been putting the life that Don and I shared, into boxes. Bags. Suitcases. Piles. This box goes to mom and dad’s place for storage. That one goes with me to my new apartment. This bag gets thrown away. That one gets donated to The Salvation Army. This one I might sell. On and on and on, making emotional decisions at lightning speed, as the days count down to when I must be gone from this room, this neighborhood, these walls. Time will not wait for my grief. Life will not be patient while I consider yet again whether or not to keep his favorite chair.

When you’re grieving and dealing with your spouse’s “stuff”, everyone is an expert. People attack you with their opinions. Everyone knows what you should do. “Only keep 10 items,” they say. “Anything you haven’t used in the last 6 months gets thrown away!”, they bellow. “Be brutal! Get rid of everything!”, they order, before returning home to their husbands and wives, who are still alive and well. People love to tell you how you need to do things, what is best for you. Do this. Do that. Keep this. Throw that out. Move on. Cleanse your soul. Get over this. Make space for new things in your life. You can’t grow with all this junk surrounding you.

And that is where it gets messy. When your spouse is alive and breathing, his dental floss or his nail file or his ratty old t-shirt might very well be junk. But when he is dead? It is everything. It is the only thing I have. There is nothing else. Just stuff. Each item becomes a tiny piece of them, something that is still somehow alive. Something I can keep. I study the dental floss like a CSI-investigator, pulling at the long string and trying to place my fingertips in the same place where he placed his the last time he used it. I unzip the old duffle bag that is sitting in the corner, wipe off the dust, and unveil the old ratty t-shirt that is inside. He played tennis wearing that ugly thing. Two days before his heart stopped, he was running around a tennis court in 92 degree heat. I sniff the shirt like it’s a fine wine, searching for his scent somewhere. Could it still be there after one year? Am I imagining that I smell him faintly? The plastic water bottle he drank from rolls out of the bag and onto the hardwood floor, taunting me. I pick it up. I fill it up with fresh water. I do not wash it first. I want to put my lips where he put his. I want to feel him through my thirst. I feel crazy as I take the first sip. It doesn’t make me feel close to him. I feel so far away.

What seems like lunatic behavior to one person, is someone else’s lifeline. What you see as nuts, I can’t be without. Those people on the show Hoarders? I understand them now. I get it. They have been through something traumatic. They lost someone that they loved, and they try to compensate by surrounding themselves with all of that person’s “stuff.” Time doesn’t give a shit about your grief, and so it marches on in that cruel way, and suddenly days become months, and months become years, until you are living in a pile of filth and trash and things. And all of that junk envelops you. It takes you over. It makes your world small, until you no longer really exist. You get lost inside the junk that isn’t them. It will never, ever be them. You know this, but you still feel paralyzed. You still feel guilt and gut-wrenching pains for every single item of them that you throw away. How can I simply discard of his things? It was his. He loved this stupid thing. It feels like I am throwing him away. It feels like he is dying again. How the fuck do people do this??? I have to stop now. It’s too much. Tomorrow. I will do this then. Seperating our life into boxes and bags is too exhausting for words. I need to quit my job so I can stare at this swiss army knife or that silly uniform pin that says ‘EMS” and decide what to do with it. These are awful choices, and I have to make them. I want to just leave everything here and run away forever. I also want to take everything with me and hold onto it for dear life. But I can’t. There are deadlines. There is rent to pay. There is reality.

The Entertainment Center in our living room. There is a little box sitting on top of it, which has a bunch of random items inside. I open it, with trashbag at the ready, feeling simultaneously victorious and like a murderer each time I throw another item away. Old pens. A piece of paper with a couple of music notes written on it. The startings of a song he was writing? Something he was learning? Seeing his handwriting gives me the chills. For a second, he is here and I am home again. There is a tiny bottle of guitar polish. He was always cleaning and taking care of his many guitars. I mocked him incessantly for treating his instruments as if they were people. The polish is old and probably expired. But he took such good care of his things. How can I just carelessly toss it away, like he was never here? Like he never even existed. I will come back to it. I can’t decide now.

The Book of Quarters. It has been sitting here, messing with me for weeks. Don collected State Quarters. He put them in this official looking book called: “State Series Quarters: Complete 100 Coin Set.” It took him years to build up the collection. He was almost finished with it. He still needed 6 states. I remember him taking me into 2 or 3 different places in the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts while we were on our Cape Cod honeymoon. He was anxious to see if they had the missing states he desired to complete his book. I laughed at him and his silly hobby. I found it lame. We had a conversation during our honeymoon that went like this:

Me: I dont understand why you collect quarters.

Him: (mock-pouts at me while folding his arms and pouting his bottom lip) Boo doesn’t like my hobby. It’s fun. It’s just something I do.

Me: But what’s the point? They just sit inside this book that you never even look at or acknowledge. It just sits on a shelf and serves no purpose.

Him: The purpose it serves is that I enjoy collecting the coins.

Me: But why? They arent even worth anything. I dont understand how that is fun.

Him: Well, Boo, you dont have to understand everything I do. It’s really not all that deep. I just like it, that’s all. It’s really no big mystery.

Me: Oh. Well that’s dumb.

Him: Yes, Boo. (laughing at me) I’m sorry my hobby is dumb to you and that it annoys you so much. Actually, Im not sorry. Annoying you is fun. Let’s go into this store. I still need the Montana Quarter. Come on Boo … (grabs my hand and walks me into store enthusiasticly) You know you want to look at coins with me. Isnt this fun?

Me: No. It’s dumb. (mock-pouting back at him)

 

Now, sitting here with this stupid book of coins, I feel guilt and sadness and pain. The logical part of my brain wants to take all the quarters out of the book, and put them into my giant change Jar, the one Don and I always threw change into over time, and then used it for laundry or tolls or saved it up and changed it in for actual dollars when we needed to. What the hell am I going to do with this Quarter Collection? I don’t collect coins. I will never collect coins. I have zero desire to collect fucking coins. But for some damn reason, I cant seem to make myself toss these dumb quarters into the Jar and be done with it. For some reason, it feels like stealing. Like Im stealing his hobby. Like Im mocking him while he’s dead. It seems really unfair. Then again, they are just coins. Why is this so hard? Why am I making it so hard? I wrestle with it for hours. I still cant decide. I need to do laundry and I have no change. The guilt creeps back as I steal from my dead husband and his harmless little hobby. I post my dilemma on Facebook, knowing how humorous it is, and knowing I will get many responses. Immediately, people start in with their opinions. People are getting emotional. Other widowed people who have their own individual issues with their loved one’s items, are becoming affected by what I decide to do with these quarters. Now it weighs on my mind, and the minds of people in cyberspace. The world is on the edge of it’s seat. Never was a book of quarters so damn entertaining. What will happen??? Will the widow make the right choice? Will she do right by her husband? There were too many people screaming and typing in my ear. I couldnt think straight, and I just wanted to be done with feeling. I took the few quarters I needed to do my laundry out of the book, did it, and decided to deal with the rest in the morning. I felt unsure about what to do, and honestly, only one person could tell me the right thing .. and that was Don.

Last night I went to bed. Last night I had a dream. It was the first time that my husband “came to me” in a dream, since months and months ago. There were two dreams where I “felt” his presence there, where It felt like more than just a dream. Both of them happened two or three months after he died. Last night it happened again. In the dream, I was lying in bed on my side like I always do. I felt his arms around me. He was spooning me, and my hand grabbed his as it reached around my waist. He was here.

“Your hands are dry, Boo. You should use some of my Chapstick on them. I still have some left. It’s in that little box on the entertainment center. Just rub it on your palms. It will help. You never used to have dry skin. I had dry skin.” His voice was calm and reassuring. I was safe again. All was well.

“Why are you wasting time talking about dry skin and chapstick? There are so many other things to talk about. I can’t believe you’re here.” My voice is shaky and scared. I’m crying.

“I’m always here for you, Boo. We don’t have to talk at all. I just want to lie here with you. I think that’s what you need right now.” He sighs into the back of my neck. I never see his face in this dream. He is behind me, and I feel him. His hands. His touch. His warmth. I feel him.

“I dont want to move, Boo. I don’t wanna move from this bed. This apartment. This room. If I leave here, and I go somewhere new, it will be somewhere that you never were. I don’t want to be anywhere that you never were. We were supposed to leave here together. I’m scared.” Now Im sobbing loudly, and his hand wipes away my tears. He rubs my back.

“I know you’re scared. I’m not going anywhere, Boo. And neither are you. You aren’t leaving me. You’re leaving this shitty, stupid, messed up state and going back to New York where you belong. Just remember – wherever you are, that is where I’ll be too. I know it’s not the same as what we planned, but I’m here. You need to know that.” He sounds like an Angel.

“I wish I could believe that. I wish these dreams would happen everyday. I wish I would stay with you forever and never, ever wake up.” My voice sounds like an alien.

We lay there in silence for awhile, until I stop crying. The whole time, I feel his arms around me. He doesn’t let go. Finally, I ask. “Are you mad at me?”

There is no hesitation in his response. “Of course not. Why would I be mad at you?” He seems hurt that I would even think such a thing.

“Because I threw away your stuff. And because of the quarters. You loved those stupid quarters.” I’m sobbing again. Ridiculously hard. These fucking quarters have made me lose my goddamn mind.

“Remember what you said on our honeymoon? They are dumb. They are just dumb quarters. What are you supposed to do with a book of quarters, Boo? They were my hobby. Not yours. Use them for laundry. Throw them in the jar. Like I told you years ago, it’s just a hobby. It’s not that deep. You do what you need to do honey. With everything. What’s mine is ours. It’s yours now. I’m dead. I don’t need a book of quarters. And you’re alive. And laundry needs quarters. Use them. They aren’t important. You’re important. I love you.” He starts to disappear now. His fingers unlock from mine.

“I hate when you leave. I hate waking up. Please please don’t go. I love you so much.” My pillow is drenched with my reality. My pain. My life. There is no response. He is gone. I’m awake. Just like that. I lay there for minutes and try like hell to get it back. But it’s gone.

After awhile, I walk into the living room, feeling as if a train just ran me over. I pick up the small box I had looked at yesterday, the one with all the random items inside it. I look at it and shake it, and it appears to be emptied. Everything was removed by me before. I sit in his favorite chair, exhausted and spent. Some time passes. Then, out of nowhere, Sammy meows. He meows again. He looks at me and keeps making noise. He is like Lassie with an important message. Something tells me to get up. Look again. I pick up the box, just for kicks. This time, the bottom of the box is not the bottom of the box. There is more. Another layer; like one of those boxes of chocolates with the paper in between. The corner is sticking up, so I pull it. Underneath lies some junk, or the greatest thing on earth, depending on who you are.

Chapstick. His chapstick that he used every single day for his really dry skin and lips that never quite got used to the air up here. I take off the cap, and twist the gooey, waxy substance into a ball, so it’s floating just above the top. Putting out the palm of my hand, I gently rub the chapstick back and forth across it, in a calming and slow rhythm, erasing my dry skin and my fears and my guilt with each stroke. Finally, I put it to my lips, and feel the texture go over my mouth, knowing that once, long ago, it was on his mouth. Knowing that I felt him in that dream, and that it wasn’t just a dream. Knowing that I can be at peace with my choices about his stuff, that isn’t just junk. Knowing that with every State Quarter I put into that washing machine, I have his permission, and that wherever I chose to go in my life, from now on, he would follow me. He will follow me. This I know, and this I choose to believe.

Amnesia

If there is one thing I have learned as a student in this new life that was handed to me by force, it is this: I don’t know a damn thing. The Grief Monster is in charge here, and much like Charles In Charge, grief wants to rule “my days and my nights, my wrongs and my rights.” Except this isn’t a really bad TV sitcom starring Scott Baio and an awful laugh track – it is my very real life. Eventually, Charles In Charge was cancelled, because it sucked. This new life I have will never be cancelled, no matter how much it sucks. And it’s also the only show on television. It is on every single channel. I have a broken television that I can never ever turn off, and I simply have to learn to deal with it.

July 13th was the one-year Anniversary of Don’s death. Have I mentioned how much I loathe the phrase “anniversary” when talking about my husband’s death? It makes it sound as if it’s a great big party, or something to celebrate with balloons and cake and ice-cream, instead of the worst day of my entire life. (I’m guessing it wasn’t the best day for my husband either.) I chose to face that day by creating a holiday out of it, and calling it “Pay it Forward for Don Shepherd Day.” I asked friends and family and total strangers; pretty much everyone on earth; to do something kind that day for someone else, in honor of my husband’s generous nature and who he was as a person everyday. I also asked them to tell me the stories of what they did, so I could read them, and make “Pay it Forward for Don Day” an entire chapter in my book. My hope was that in creating this type of day, it would not only help others; but also remove the horror of having to sit with and deal with re-living the worst day of my life, one year later, and that I would instead have something hopeful to focus on. Did it work? Yes. And not at all. I still felt shaky and panicky all day on July 13th, and I woke up at 6:43am, the exact time that my phone kept ringing and ringing and eventually waking me up just one year before, informing me of my new, terrible life.

 As we gathered later that night with my mom, my dad, my Aunt Debbie and Uncle Richard, and our friends Cheryl, Thelma and Ron; celebrating Don’s life by eating his favorite homemade chicken parmesan, garlic bread, salad, brownie sundaes, and root beer; I was able to somehow get through the evening. The constant barrage of emails, private messages, texts, and a few phone calls saying: “Thinking of you today”, or telling me an incredible Pay it Forward story, kept my emotional breakdown at bay. But it was still there, just waiting to pounce. The Grief Monster never goes away – he just waits until that one second where you finally start to think: “Maybe Im going to be okay today” – and then he attacks violently and with no warning. He makes your stomach churn and gives you intense headaches that start at the center of your eyeball and pound against your temple nonstop. He gives you the shakes, and that feeling like there’s a brick in your chest, and everything you do is so heavy. Every breath is so thick. You want to explain to people and to earth and to your job that, yes, you are aware it’s been an entire year since your husband died, and yes, you are still grieving. You want to scream to the world that “NO!!! I’M NOT OKAY YET!”, or order them politely to please stop rushing you into the next phase of your feelings. “I’m not ready!”, you want to tell them. But they aren’t listening. They are eating brownie sundaes and laughing in the next room, as you anticipate The Grief Monster’s next  unpredictable move.

And, so, as it happened; my first breakdown this week came about two days later; on the morning of Sunday, July 15th, while still at my parents place. Why? No goddamn reason at all, except that Grief Monster wanted it that way. What happened that day to make me lose my mind and feel stuck on despair? Absolutely fucking nothing, that’s what. I woke up. And sometimes, waking up is more than enough to cause an emotional breakdown. In this case, the term “waking up” is being used rather loosely, since technically I had only slept about 40 minutes. Suddenly, I was sitting up in bed and staring blankly at the wall and the mirror in front of me, as tears slowly moved down my cheeks. I sat there for twenty minutes, or three hours. Silently crying, and not caring enough to do anything about it. I had to pee for a long time, but couldnt make myself get out of bed to do so. It just suddenly, at that stupid, nothing moment, hit me like a tornado. This thought is what floored me: My husband has been dead for one year. It has ONLY been one year. One year living without him. That was just ONE year in a series of MANY years that I will have to KEEP living without him. I have to live without my husband for many years, possibly decades. Forever. He will be dead forever.

That last sentence was like a loop inside my heart, playing over and over again. He will be dead forever. Here, everyone was acting like the one-year mark was some big revolution; like things would suddenly brighten and the skies would open up for me, and I would start to maybe feel a bit less hopeless. Yet, that is not what was happening at all. The one thing going through my mind sitting in that bed on that morning, was that the real hell was only just beginning. No longer in “shock mode”, and no more grief fog protecting me from myself; these feelings have never felt so harsh, so painful, so hurtful. My mom came into the room and tried to be a mom and help me. I should have let her. Instead, I looked right through her, because I couldn’t see. Her pain and my pain and her pain about my pain, and all the pain inside that room was just too much for me to look at. Everything was paralyzed. I couldn’t even cry anymore, at least not volentarily. The tears kept coming, but they were slow and accidental, like a leaky faucet in the middle of the night, just dripping out now and then off my face. I felt like I couldn’t move or didnt want to move. Why should I have to ever move off of this bed? What if I don’t like what’s waiting for me? A life without my husband? Always feeling alone in a room full of people? Dreading each and every holiday and special day on every calendar year? Watching 17 episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in a row, in some crazy, Food Network haze so I don’t have to feel anything real and awful? Drowning my intense pain with mashed potatoes, or stuffing it down with chocolate cake? This is the life I have waiting for me? No thanks. Maybe I will just stay sitting in this bed until it’s time for me to die. Or until my mom informs me that I have to get out of the bed so I can go and babysit my niece and nephew at my brother’s house. Oh. Okay. In that case, I suppose I will keep living. Just for today though. Tomorrow – it’s back to sulking.

Today is Tuesday, July 17th. I woke up feeling physically ill, and that damn headache was back again. I woke up crying. I didn’t want to, or mean to. It was involentary. Stretched, yawned, and cried. Why am I feeling so lost this morning? I put on the news. 96 degrees today, with heat index of 110. Why does that sound like an echo to me? There is a certain smell in the air. It’s the smell of humidity. It’s the smell of something familiar and awful. It’s the same smell that was in the air just one year ago today; the day of my husband’s funeral.

Grief is a fucked-up thing. Everytime you think you are moving forward, it stops you cold. In the days and weeks leading up to the one-year mark of his death; my mind went reeling back to last year at this time. Not only did I re-live the actual day that he died and the horrors I went through on that day; but I also re-lived and questioned all the surrounding days and weeks around that day. When you lose your spouse in a sudden and tragic way; and it happens in a flash; you want to give significance to things that had no significance at the time. You didn’t know he was going to die, so how were you to know that every single thing you did would be the last time you would be doing it? Over the past few weeks, my heart and brain have been on overload, trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle that made up his last few weeks and days on earth. When was our last kiss? When was the last meal we ate together? The last time we were intimate? The last time we hung out with friends? When did we laugh together? When was the last time he strummed his guitar for me? What was our last conversation about? What was the last thing I said to my husband? I honestly have no idea. The night before he died is like a vague cloud of nothingness. It was a typical evening in an ordinary married day. We were both exhausted. He was sitting at this very desk where I type this up now, and he was online and texting to a friend. I was talking to him. Smalltalk. I was watching something on TV. I dont recall what. We talked some more. Or didnt. I dont remember. And then, just like that, it was over. The memory fades. Either I fell asleep or he did or we both did. There was no goodnight kiss that night. There was no goodnight anything. The night just sort of came to an end, and he had to be up at 4:30am the next morning for work. He knew how much trouble I had sleeping, so when he left that early, he would never wake me. And so he left. And he went to work. And while I lay there asleep, he lay collapsed on a Petsmart floor. And then when I finally woke up, his life had already ended.

People ask me all the time how I got through the funeral, or how I wrote and delivered a Eulogy for my husband. Easy answer. I got through it, because I wasn’t really ever there. Physically, I was there. But I was in deep, deep shock at that point; just 4 days after he died. I stood in that room, with my husband in a casket behind me, and I pretended that none of it was happening. I was not able to comprehend the sheer horror of what had transpired, or what was to come. There was a cloud over my head during that funeral, and in the weeks and months afterward. Now – one year later – the cloud has lifted, and I am left with a very frightening reality. It hurts like hell now, and knowing that there is nothing I can do but just “walk through the fire”, as my grief counselor so perfectly put it, makes that pain even more unbearable. There is no running away. No escaping it. The only way out is through. The only way out is through.

So in my state of panic and terror and sadness, I made an emergency call to my grief counselor today. And we talked. And, like she always has a way of doing for me, she gave me a bit of hope. She doesn’t say anything magical , or even “fix” things for me. Because there is no such thing as fixing this. It cannot be fixed. But she tells me the truth, and she does it in a really smart and compassionate way, and that is so much more than a lot of other people do. I told her how for months, I couldn’t remember anything at all about the funeral. It was like a big blank space in my memory. It was the same for my first birthday without him, his birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, all of it. A big, gigantic mass of vague. That is how I got through all of those days – I was protected by the cloud. I told her that grieving feels a lot like being a patient who is recovering from Amnesia; and all of the painful details of important days and events in our life, like his services, are coming back to me now; in flashes. It doesn’t even feel like I am re-living the funeral. It feels as if I am there for the first time. If you asked me 6 months ago to tell you the details of Don’s services, I would have stared at you with fog in my eyes. Now? There are so many things that I clearly remember about the funeral. Things that I wish would go away, things I will never forget, things that a 39 year old woman at the beginning of her wonderful marriage should not have to think about. But here they are, stuck inside of me forever ….

I remember being in the backseat of my parent’s car while they drove us from Massachusetts to New Jersey, and texting back and forth with Opie. He sent me a private message that said: “You’re strong, and you’ll get through today. Lean on your family and friends.” I remember him sending out a tweet to all the fans of their radioshow on Twitter, that simply said: “Our friend Kelley Lynn is attending her husband’s funeral today. Please reach out to her if you can. She will need it.”

I remember shopping with my mom for an outfit to wear to my husband’s funeral, and how strange and terrible and weird that sounded to say out loud. The sales woman asked me: “Anything I can help you with todayyyy?”, in a way too bubbly voice, and I remember wanting to answer, in that same phony way: “Why YES! What goes better with my husband’s casket – red or blue?” I will never forget trying on that cranberry sleeveless blouse, liking it, and immediately thinking: “Don would love this on me.” Then realizing, of course, that Don would never love anything on me again.

I remember how disgustingly hot it was that day. High 90’s, just like today. It was sticky and humid and disastrous. I remember getting there early, and the funeral director asking me if I wanted Don’s wedding ring. He informed me that when my husband is cremated, “that ring isn’t going with him. It belongs with you.” He handed it to me and I kept touching it all day long, rolling it back and forth in the palm of my hand, as if doing so would make all of this go away. I remember the smell of death flowers and awkwardness and pain as I walked into the big main room where he lay there in his casket. The American Flag was draped over half of it, and my husband didn’t look like my husband. His face was puffy. His eyes looked weird. They were not his eyes. They looked swollen shut. His arms were thicker than normal. His hands were placed in an unnatural position that he would have never put them in. He seemed uncomfortable. He had this creepy look on his face. It was a combination of stillness and fear. I remember talking with friends in front of, to the side of, and all around that casket, never once acknowledging it. If I ignored it, then it wasn’t really happening. If I kept telling myself “that is not my husband”, then maybe it really wouldn’t be. I remember bits and pieces of conversations with people, as songs from Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic and the Beatles Abbey Road played in the background. They told me that during the “viewing” portion of the afternoon, I could have whatever music I wanted playing. And that is what Don wanted. Aerosmith.

I remember talking with one of Don’s EMS brothers, Matt, and how shaken up he was and crying. I kept thinking “Why am I comforting HIM? Im the wife and Im not even crying. What the hell is wrong with me?” I recall that when I mentioned how Don looked nothing at all like himself because the Organ Donation people “took so much – he isnt even recognizable”, he corrected me by saying: “Don’t word it that way. They didn’t take anything. Don gave.” Right. He gave. I gave. I gave away my husband, and now he looked like Frankenstein instead of my Sweet BooBear.

I remember everyone sweating, and constantly wiping their foreheads and fanning themselves with anything they could find. My dad asking the funeral director to please turn up the air-conditioning, and them telling us over and over: “It IS up!” I remember being in the bathroom with Don’s good friend Meg before the service, and telling her that I just got “friend” (my period), and how Don would be laughing at me, because he always said that it showed up on the most important days for me. And there it was. Right on time.

I remember so clearly, such small and unimportant details. My dad asking the pastor for directions to the nearest Dunkin Donuts so he could go and get his morning coffee, and how he tried to make me eat a muffin and I just couldn’t. The funeral director asking me which pictures I would like placed on the back of my husband’s casket. The guest book and fancy pen by the door that reminded me of weddings; people signing their names as if this was some happy occasion to remember down the road. The funeral cards we had made up days earlier; me, my mom, and Don’s EMS bosses and managers. We did one that was serious, and one that was silly and funny and that Don would have cracked up at. It said: “Hi. I’m Don. I was here. Now I’m gone.” We only gave that one out to special friends with a sick and twisted sense of humor. In that room, that ended up being a lot of people.

People. There were endless amounts of people. The heartbreak in my friend John’s eyes, the crack in Kevin’s voice, the knowing look from my boss and friend Laura; who had lost her own brother and father only 4 months apart, just 5 years ago. The comedian friends that showed up and made sick jokes and made me laugh inappropriately. Standing in the hallway with Jessica Kirson, Danny Cohen, and Jonathan Fursh; saying that one of us should get up there and “do a comedy set.” The woman who walked up to me and said: “You dont know me, but I know you from the comedy circuit and Facebook. I just had to come here today and honor the love that you and Don had, and the life you had together.” She was, at the time, a complete stranger to me. We hugged, and have been friends ever since. Watching Don’s sister Karen and her husband George walk into the room, after their long drive from Ohio, and thinking to myself: “Don, your sister is here! Come on out here and talk to your sister!” The faraway look in her eyes as she tried to convince me, and herself, that his death was quick and therefore, more peaceful. Seeing Don’s best friend in the world Rob, and his wife Mindy, after driving from Florida to attend the service. Watching as Rob came out in his EMS uniform to honor Don. Watching as all of his EMS brothers and sisters slowly filled up the room, all in uniform. In the back, a whole bunch of doctors and nurses, all coming directly from their shifts and in their scrubs. An entire group of employees and friends from his part-time job at Petsmart, where he collapsed just 4 days earlier. Watching as EMS and Air Force lined the walls and held flags up throughout the service. Feeling my face turn hot as the soldiers and Air Force members kept saluting me, acknowledging me, looking me directly in the eyes as they performed their procedural ceremonies.

I will always remember the beautiful and heartfelt words that were spoken about Don by so many people. His boss Joe, who offered Don a management position multiple times, only for Don to shrug his shoulders and say: “No thanks.” He didn’t want the stress. He wanted to come home to his wife each night and not think about work anymore. Our friend Kevin, whose words were touching and funny, and spoke of the true love Don had for me and my family. Mary, who runs the adoption for kitties center at the Petsmart where Don volenteered his time, telling endless stories of Don’s love for animals. Meg and Don became close friends when they were EMS partners on the ambulance, and her speech spoke of how amazing Don was as a paramedic, and how he made everyone else feel safer. Rob told some great stories about his days on the ambulance with Don, and how they would banter and purposely try to annoy the other. So many words of love spoken. Mine was last, of course, and I barely recall delivering it. The highlight was when one of the Air Force members took a spill and passed out right in the middle of my speech. Does anyone know if there’s an EMT in the house?

I will never forget sitting in that front row, and feeling outside of myself as the Air Force members folded up the American flag, played TAPS, and delivered their touching speech that before then, I had only seen in the movies. A young African-American pretty lady handed me the folded up flag, and she said: “On behalf of the President of the United States of America, we thank you for your service.” I remember my brother sitting next to me, and when I cried, he started rubbing my back. And then there was a line. A long, endless line of loved ones, friends, family, colleagues … all there to say we love you, and his life mattered. The line seemed to never end, and the people kept coming and coming. “We’re sorry for your loss”, as they bent down to my chair and hugged me, then Don’s sister and George, then my brother and Jen, my mom, and my dad. The words continued from many. “So sorry for your loss.” My cousins and their families; my Aunt Ginny; Nicky and his wife Julie; all coming from far away to support me. The faces I went to college with at Adelphi over 20 years ago, all back together in one, horrific place. Holly, Meghan, Kim, Debra, Matt, Vinnie, Rodney, Jay, Andrew … it was so surreal. I remember each time I turned around, there was a new person to hug, another face to look at, a different soul to hear.

 Once everyone had cleared out, they left us alone with Don. I will never forget my mom saying to him: “Thank you for being such a wonderful husband. We love you.” I remember what she said, and have no idea what I said. What do you say to someone that you know you will never see again, who doesn’t even look like themself and is lying there not breathing? There’s not much to say. As I walked out though, my only thought was: “How can we just leave him here all alone?” That simple thought crushed my insides.  When we left the funeral home, I was escorted out and led through men and women in uniform forming a canopy above me with their swords. A long line of Hackensack Medical Center ambulances led the way and formed the most beautiful processional I have ever seen. They took us down NJ streets which were closed off for Don, and we were brought to the nearby Vanguard Healthcare, where Don worked and where we all gathered for after-death refreshments.

At the food gathering, I recall talking to people and mingling as if it were a normal event. As if my husband would join us any minute at his place of work and make some comment about idiot New Jersey drivers making him late. As Sarah and Julio served up gourmet food from his restaurant, and people talked and laughed and drank coffee and soda and ate cookies around me, I really wasn’t getting this. It wasn’t sinking in. I was there. But I was not there. I understood, but I couldn’t possibly understand. I cried tears, but I didn’t feel raw pain. Not yet. And not for awhile. That happened last month, and last week, and today.

 Today – I attended my husband’s funeral for the first time, and finally looked at what was inside that casket. Today, I didn’t turn away. In some ways, today was the worst day of my life, because even though it happened a year ago; this time; I was there.

 

 

 

I’m In Love With a Dead Guy

Today is March 13, 2012, and it has been exactly nine months since my husband died. It’s been nine months since I have felt him hold me or touch me, or take his index finger, put it on the tip of my nose, and go “BEEP!” He really loved doing that, and it was so incredibly silly. We would pass each other on the way to the kitchen, and he would stop and go “Beep!” on my nose. It’s been nine long months since I’ve heard my husband speak words to me, or laugh with me, or start his sentences with: “You know …” while folding his arms across his chest. Nine months since he sat in his favorite chair while I would present him with various fun “prizes” like candy bars and toys. Nine months since he tapped his fingers on my arm or leg, to the beat of the music, while trying to learn a new guitar chord. Nine months since he put his key in the door while coming home from work, snuck in slowly so as not to fully wake me, and said out loud while pointing at each of us: “One kitty, two kitty, and a Boo. Everyone is safe.”

 For the past nine months, I have eaten meals alone. I’ve watched movies without pausing them every 10 minutes so we can give each other mini-reviews throughout: “You like it so far? Cuz I love it!” “Yeah! This is awesome!” For the past nine months, I have been to the grocery store and only bought foods that I like; avoiding the aisles that contained all of his favorites; telling myself not to look too long at the Special Dark Bars, or the Barq’s Root Beer, or you might cry. For nine months now, I haven’t been able to ask him his opinion, or get his advice, or his take on something I’ve been writing or performing or doing. For nine months, I’ve shut off the bedroom light with no fanfare, instead of racing my husband to be the first one into bed. He would usually beat me, and yell victoriously: “HA HA! I’m in bed first! I win! You have to shut the light! Ha Ha!” For nine months, I’ve been throwing my hair up in a wet ponytail after my shower, instead of Don gently towel-drying it for me while standing in front of me, humming some made-up song.

It’s hard to comprehend that it’s been nine months in this life. It feels like an eternity without him. Each day that goes by feels longer; like just another 24 hours that I dont get to spend with him. It also strikes me that nine months is the length of a typical pregnancy, and that in the time since my husband has died, another family member has been born. Our brand new niece; Jillian; came into the world on March 7th. After my mom called  to tell me she had been born, I hung up the phone and started crying. I felt so alone and so sad for Don; who would never get to meet this beautiful little girl. He will never get to meet anyone ever again. Jillian’s birth is one of the first, significant things that have taken place, completely in the span of time that Don hasn’t been here to know about it. Nine months is a long time. He doesn’t know a lot of things. He doesn’t know that our dear friend Rodney got married, and he didn’t get to see the unique and beautiful ceremony where Andrew married them. He missed Sarah’s 40th birthday party, and he doesn’t know that John is in college now, taking film courses; or that his best friend Rob got yet another promotion. He doesn’t know that a Comedy Benefit was put together in his honor, or that I went to New Orleans, or that Posada retired this year from baseball. My husband has no idea that I’m driving an entirely different car, or that my parents are living in a different town. Enough time has passed since his death, for me to write a play about my experience with grief; and to be performing it in the Network’s One-Act Play Festival. Don will never get to read my blog, or my book about him, or know all the things I am trying to do just to honor him and my love for him. He has missed so, so many things.

The more time that passes, the more that I miss him. I cannot believe how much I miss him. Sometimes I’m instantly struck by how much I ache for him, and I have to literally catch my breath and rejoin the world again. Other times, it’s the world that brings me to my knees with it’s constant reality in my face. The world always finds ways to twist the knife a little bit harder in cruel demonstration that he is never coming back. It has become more and more difficult to simply be with other people. Family, couples, friends, and even people just talking about their significant others in conversation. There are so many times when I think I’m doing okay one second, and then I’m suddenly not okay at all. Like last night; after watching Rodney’s acting debut in the Festival, and witnessing my friend; his now wife Sheri; come up and give him a quick little supportive kiss in the lobby after the show. It was no big deal – just one of those little things that married people do – and it instantly transported me to the numerous shows of mine where Don did the same thing. Knowing that the person you love most, your life-partner, is out there in that crowd smiling and proud of you while you’re onstage, is everything. Performing has become an entirely new experience for me now. I feel lost when I get off the stage, because there are no arms waiting to hug me. No lips waiting to kiss me and say: “You were amazing.” Nobody to whisper in my ear privately: “My Boo was the bestest one up there. You always slay everybody else.”

 It is these little, everyday things that are the worst and the saddest for me to deal with. On Sunday, I did my second play performance in the festival; and my mom, Aunt Debbie, and Nancy all came out from Massachusetts to see it. We stayed at a Marriott that night together, and the next morning, had a really nice relaxing breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We were sitting there talking for a long time, and the subject turned to a long discussion about my mom and dad, Aunt Debbie and Uncle Richard, and Nancy and Ron. They were each bringing up different issues; big and small; about their partners, their marriages. They talked about different quirks and habits their husband’s had, things that drive them crazy, things they have gone through together over the years inside the marriage. Suddenly; I felt so uncomfortable and out of place. I got that feeling again, like I wanted to run away and cry. I will never know what it’s like to be married to someone for 25 or 40 or 50 years; or to go through those mid-life changes with each other; to go through losing other people together. This scares me more than anything else – that when I have to lose people in my life, Don will not be here to help me get through it. I will not have my husband to lean on ever again, to get us through those times where everything seems wrong. There are some days where I don’t feel as if I can exist or function with normal, everyday people. Nobody is in my situation. Nobody in my everyday life knows what it’s like to deal with this.

Nine months is a long, long time. And then, when you think about it in terms of life, it’s not a long time at all. Nine months behind me; still a lifetime to go. When you marry someone; you just assume and hope and think that you’ll be together forever. You don’t think one of you will lose their life this way, this soon. And so when that happens, and you are left here on earth without that person that you vowed to be with for life, it is an extremely confusing time. Most people become widowed when they are old, and while it is still very sad to lose your spouse at any age, they dont have to face decades of a future without their love. This is why losing your spouse is so different than losing anyone else in your life. Everything you do and everything you are, is intertwined with that person. To lose them suddenly, is to throw you into mass chaos. Who am I now? What am I doing? Where do I fit? What does it all mean without someone to share it with? What is the point without love? I vowed to love this man until forever; until “death do us part.” But what if only one of you dies, and they die at age 46? Where does that leave the other? Just because he is dead, does not mean I love him any less. In fact, my love for him has never felt stronger and more alive than right now. My husband is gone, and I love him. I do not know how to stop loving him, and I don’t know that I would ever want to. But how do you continue life when you are in love with someone you can no longer be with? I wish I knew. My heart is stuck on forever, and I don’t know how to not love my husband. I am in love with a dead guy. Tell me – what am I supposed to do with that?

The Fog

Every single night since my husband’s death has been an adventure. Not the fun kind of adventure; like when you are on vacation and anxiously await what today will bring in the way of new and exciting activities. No. This is more like the: “what kind of hell am I facing on this night, as I simply try to get a few hours of sleep so I can perhaps function and be a human being in the world tomorrow?” type of adventure. The word FUN does not exist in this reality.

The very idea of going to sleep each night brings on anxiety, panic, and unease. There are just so many factors involved. If I have done a lot of intense crying that day; which normally is the case but not always; then I might want to take some kind of Excedrin or Advil for my horrible headaches that always follow the massive crying spurts. But then sometimes my back, shoulders, and entire body are aching so badly from doing things Im not used to doing yet; like lifting EVERY SINGLE THING I OWN from my car in the parking garage across the street; to my apartment on the 3rd floor; day after day after annoying goddamn day. Heavy bags of groceries, cat litter, lugguge from spending time at my parents place, boxes of Demo Products, my gigantic shoulder bag for teaching, the microphone stand and mic I bring for my stand-up comedy students; and on and on and on. All things that Don used to just automatically carry for me, always.

In addition to that, Im doing all the cleaning, all the car stuff, and basically anything and everything else that needs to be done or comes up. Although we both did quite a bit of “stuff” around the apartment, Don was always the “take care of things” guy. He did all the carrying of heavy things, all the fixing of things that broke, and all the killing of frightening bugs or other unidentifiable creatures. That is just what he did. I would panic – he would fix. Now I just panic. And ache. So if its been THAT kind of day; then I might need some sort of Ibuprofin pill to stop aching so much so that MAYBE I can get 3 hours of sleep that night. Of course; just falling asleep and then staying asleep is another terrible adventure in itself; as in; it rarely happens. So 90% of the time, I take two Tylenol PM to help get me to slumberland. This doesnt always guarantee I will get a good nights sleep, but it will, at the very least, knock me out for an initial 3 hours or so. After that, who the hell knows what will happen; but it almost always ends or begins with the clock somewhere around 4:30am, and Sammy the cat on my pillow, pawing and clawing on my face.

So, the anxiety and ease has already begun before even attempting to sleep. Which pill do I take? What is worse: my headache, or my not being tired enough to NOT be up thinking for hours? If I have to be up at 6am to teach the next morning; this anxiety is then magnified. Or should I take something for this pain that is in my shoulders, back, and arms? My arms are absolutely killing me. They feel like they are on fire. Its got to be from all the lifting of incredibly heavy bags, but of course, the very idea that they are always hurting or feel sort of numb then throws me into further panic mode; thinking: “Holy Shit! Am I having a heart attack? Am I going to die like he did?” This thought goes through my mind on a loop, every single day. It is awful. Then the second, immediate thought is always: “If I die, Im totally alone here in this apartment. Nobody will even know Im dead. It could be days, or a week, before anyone knows Im gone. I will just be lying here. Dead.” When you lose your husband in an instant the way I did, you end up with severe anxiety that the same thing can very well happen to you, or to anyone you love. You end up obsessing and thinking about death way more than you should, because you now have the harsh knowledge that it can all be over, for any of us, in a split second. There is no sense of comfort or peace anywhere in this “journey.” (Those who have been reading and following so far know how much I HATE it when this horrific life of grief is called a “journey.” Yuck.)

After finally deciding on my drug of choice for the evening, I usually climb into my bed, and that is where the real “adventure” begins. First of all; it’s our bed. OUR bed. So every night; I have to get in it, look over to his side, and see the nothingness. The empty pillow with nobody’s head on it. There are nights I lay there for minutes or hours; just picturing his face looking back at me; or remembering a specific night of us being intimate, or kissing, or holding hands, or just talking. Or laughing. We laughed a lot in bed at night. Im not sure why. I think in a lot of ways, lying there together was like our “silly time.” It was where we would really let go and just be immature and make each other crack up at stupid things that wouldnt ever be funny to anyone else. We would sing silly songs to each other, or to the kitties; and they would climb up on us and purr. Most nights; when Don and I were sleeping facing one another; Sammy would wedge himself right in between us; and he would lay there like a little person; this third head right smack in the middle of ours. It was pretty much the cutest thing on earth.Then Autumn would sleep right at my feet; and I would always end up kicking her by accident several thousand times during the night.

 I also remember that anytime we would go to my parents house for the weekend; which was a lot; mom and dad would give us their bedroom to sleep in; and dad would sleep downstairs while mom slept in the smaller bed next to their bedroom. There were so many mornings where mom would say to us in the kitchen: “What on earth were you two laughing about last night? I heard you laughing like hell in there for the longest time!” I don’t even know what we were laughing at most times, to be honest. We just really loved to laugh. Now; there is no more laughing while lying in bed. There is just me; trying like hell to get through the night; so I can get up tomorrow and try like hell to get through the day. So that I can maybe get through the night. To get through the …. you get the idea. It’s an exhausting and endless cycle.

Lying in bed most nights; many things happen. I start thinking. Then I think some more. Memories. His voice. His touch. His hands. Things that were said. Moments. The tears usually come pretty fast while trying to sleep. One of the cats will jump up on his pillow next to me; or sleep behind my head on my pillow. A lot of times, the very presence of the kitties sends me into emotional turmoil. I think about how much he loved them; how he took such good care of them; and how much they miss him being here. How he would brush their fur and their TEETH so patiently. Yes, he brushed their teeth. It was amazing to watch. Now; in my new reality; several times; I have held onto Sammy and cried into his fur; holding onto him for dear life. The strange thing is; he lets me. He knows. He will cuddle up to me and let me cry, or place his head on my arm or up against me while I’m a sobbing mess. Most nights; Autumn will lay at the foot of the bed, by my feet. She is a lot less cuddly than Sammy; but she has gotten a lot closer to me since Don died. She will come up and purr into my pillow, or give me a quick lick on my hand, then rub her face all over me. We all lay there together; mourning and asking why it’s just us. I talk to them. I feel like a crazy person; like what everyone thinks a stereotypical “widow” is; but I talk to them. I might say: “You miss Boo Bear too, don’t you? I know, honey. I know you miss him too. I miss him so much.”

Sometimes I see Sammy on Don’s pillow, and he is looking at me with his huge, beautiful eyes, and Its like Im trying to see my husband through his eyes. It sounds nuts, because it IS nuts. But it’s what Im left with, and its what I do. I will look at Sammy and say: “Boo Bear? Are you in there, Boo?” Then Ill start laughing at how ridiculous I sound. As Don would have said: “You’re not all there, Boo. You’ve finally lost it.” We weren’t much on religion or Heaven or any of those things, but Don believed, or HOPED, that when it was his time, he would be with his kitties Isabelle and Ginger again somehow. He also believed that if there was a God; or whatever God was; that animals had the closest access. He believed that animals knew more than humans did; that they were on a different playing field somehow to that other world. Sometimes I feel him, or try to, through our pets. We lie there together with the TV on all night; for noise. I cannot stand the silence that comes with being alone. I need to keep the TV on, so I can trick myself into thinking Im not alone here forever. I hear noises. The realities of being a female alone in her apartment and vulnerable, hit hard late at night. I don’t feel safe. There are thoughts that go through my head each night; especially when the TV is off and there is darkness. It is a terrrible, unsafe feeling.

 And then, there are the nightmares. Every single night; I have some kind of dream. Most nights; I have several dreams; one right after the other. The most common one that I’ve had over and over again; is where I either re-live the morning he died, or make up some other version of it in my sleep, and then re-live that. Sometimes the nightmare is the actuality of waking up to the ringing phone, rushing to the hospital, being told he is gone, the utter shock. Seeing his body and talking to him, not knowing what I was supposed to say. Other times; the nightmare is coming from his viewpoint. Since I wasnt there when he had his heart-attack and can only go on what his co-workers tell me of that morning, my mind makes up the worst, most chilling scenarios, and plays them back to me while I sleep. I picture him lying there, collapsed, on a cold Petsmart floor. In reality; I am told he was there for a couple minutes at most before they saw him and called for help; but my nightmares have him lying there for ten, twenty minutes; begging for help. Nobody coming to help him. He reaches for his cell phone to call 911, or me, and he cant get to it before becoming unconscious. Or he is in and out of consciousness; and aware that he is going to die. He is scared. He wants to live. He wants to see me, see his kitties. I picture the ambulance ride to the hospital. Was he coherant? Did he know what was happening? Did he know the tables were turned, and he wasn’t driving the ambulance this time, but the one lying on the stretcher? WAS HE SCARED? I don’t know how Im expected to sleep with these kinds of thoughts inside my head. If I don’t get any sleep, I am exhausted the next day and can barely function. If I DO get some sleep, I have so many disturbing dreams, that I wake up exhausted from them and can barely function. Its an endless, ridiculous cycle.

The dreams that seem sweet at the time are almost worse, though. There have been many dreams that seem pleasant and beautiful. One night I had a vivid dream that I was pregnant; and it wasnt planned; and in the dream, I was telling Don the news, and he took me in his arms and jumped up and down with me, saying: “Wow! What a wonderful surprise, Boo! I’m gonna be a dad? This is so cool!” Another one Ive had often, is that I get the call from the hospital that morning, but instead of saying “We have your husband”, they say: “We have your husband. He had a minor heart attack, but he’s fine. He’s going to make it.” He gets a second chance, like so many others have. He gets to live, and I get to see him, and my world isn’t turned upside down in an instant. I have also had several dreams where Don and I are going through the process of adopting a child; something that we talked about doing many, many times. In these dreams; he gets to be the incredible father that he himself never got to have. He gets to finally be the dad that I know for a fact he would have been. The very thought of him never having that chance, and of me having to let go and mourn the idea of having a family with my husband, brings me to tears everyday. To be faced with families everywhere in the real world is bad enough – to dream about it all the time is awful. These dreams are unbearable, because you wake up happy and giddy for a few seconds; believing that what you just dreamt is the reality. Then you slowly realize it was just a dream. There is no baby. There will never be a baby. No child to give a family to. No family. Oh, and by the way, your husband didn’t make it. He died. It hits you like a ton of bricks and you cry for an hour sometimes before you can pull yourself up. And you have to pull yourself up. Employers don’t understand “I had a terrible dream” as an excuse to call out of your teaching duties.

There have been times where I’ve told people of these dreams; and they always say the same thing whenever I report dreaming about Don. “It was a visit. He was visiting you.” This drives me nuts. So far; there has only been ONE dream where I FELT like it could have been Don “visiting” me, or his spirit, or whatever it is you believe or want to call it. That was the dream that I referred to as “Eleven”; where we had sweet, very realistic dialogue, and I could FEEL his hug on me. That dream was so powerful physically and emotionally, that it affected me for days afterwards. I felt like I needed 2 days off just to recover from the intensity of that dream. As far as all the other dreams; they are just dreams, and most of them are not at all comforting. They are my mind and my heart, remembering. Wishing things were different. Wanting to bring him back.

The other night, I had a dream that was very basic. It was just me and Don, sitting at a Yankee game. We were enjoying a baseball game, the way we used to. Two people told me that dream was him “visiting me.” No it wasn’t. It was me wanting to be at a baseball game with my husband, and hang out with him again. It was me missing him. My mind never stops. The dreams never stop. The only thing worse than trying to get through the day, is trying to get through the night. It hurts to be awake, and it hurts to be asleep. Everything in between is a fog. Will there ever be any peace?

 

 

Jealousy

(Originally written on 8/11/2011)

JEALOUSY

Today my mom, dad and I went with our close family friend Eve to the hospital/comfort care center to visit her husband Charlie. Everyone calls him Chuck, and I know him as “Uncle Chuck.” Hes not my uncle by blood or anything, but my brother and I grew up with them as our next door neighbors our entire childhood on Taylor Road in Groton, and we always called them “Aunty Eve and Uncle Chuck.” They were one of those couples that always seemed to be stuck in time; as if they both remained the same age year after year.They never changed. Same hairstyle, same type of clothes, same habits, same routine. Their yellow house next door looked the same every single Christmas, and they both seemed to revel in their sameness. It was wonderful, and comfortable, and they liked it. And then about seven years ago, something weird happened. Uncle Chuck started getting sick, and old. And sometimes, when you live right next door to someone forever and see them everyday, you dont notice them getting old. But because I lived in NJ and would come home to Groton Massachusetts every few months; I started to notice that the once quick-witted, funny, stubborn, nice as hell guy I always knew … was becoming a bit less quick, and a lot more stubborn. Continue reading “Jealousy” »